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British Columbia Former B.C. official blasts probe into health worker firings

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is shown in Vancouver on Thursday September 11, 2014.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Premier Christy Clark promised Thursday that she will immediately make public the findings of an independent probe into the firing of health research workers that is due next month. But a former senior official involved in those firings says the investigation is tainted by conflict and crafted to protect the Premier's office from judgment.

The NDP opposition grilled the Premier over accusations from the former deputy minister of health, Graham Whitmarsh, who says senior government officials who were themselves part of the firing decisions should not have set the terms of reference for the review.

In the two years since the Ministry of Health fired eight workers amid allegations of breach of privacy and conflict of interest involving personal health records, the province has steadily retreated. Most of the workers have been reinstated or have settled claims for wrongful dismissal, and pharmaceutical research contracts have been restored. The government acknowledges it found no evidence that any medical data were accessed or used for purposes other than health research. The Premier has already said she expects the review will show her government was heavy-handed and unfair to many of the people involved.

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But the government hasn't explained why it went after those workers. Labour lawyer Marcia McNeil's report was expected to shed some light on the scandal, which led one of the fired researchers, Roderick MacIsaac, to suicide. The coroner's report noted he had experienced significant personal stress over his dismissal and its impact on his academic future, chronicled in a document found on his home computer.

Ms. McNeil will deliver her report to the deputy attorney-general on Dec. 19, and Ms. Clark said it will be made public the same day.

"We should wait and see once, in due course, this report is finished," she said when asked in Question Period about Mr. Whitmarsh's concerns. "It will be released on December 19, and at that point, we'll have more substance that we can discuss in this Legislature and outside it," Ms. Clark said.

Adrian Dix, the NDP health critic, said the wrongful dismissals damaged people and reputations, but the affair also has set back research into pharmaceuticals.

"The ultimate losers are the people of B.C.," he said. "Independent research into the safety of prescription drugs has been fundamentally damaged, and people are less safe as a result."

In a lengthy exchange of correspondence, Mr. Whitmarsh – ultimately responsible for the firings – says the review will not provide full answers because of its limited scope, the short time frame and the involvement of people connected to the decision to fire the workers.

In a Nov. 7 letter to the Premier from his lawyer, Mr. Whitmarsh contends that the Public Service Agency that drafted the terms of reference for the probe is in "an obvious conflict of interest." And those terms are so restrictive, "it appears that the review has been deliberately designed so that it cannot result in a full review."

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The chain of events began in March, 2012, in response to an allegation about contracting irregularities and inappropriate research-grant practices in the Pharmaceutical Services Division.

Mr. Whitmarsh said the investigation into those allegations, and the subsequent decision to fire the researchers, was handled with full knowledge of the Premier's deputy minister, John Dyble, who is the head of the public service. Mr. Dyble in turn directed the head of the Public Service Agency, Lynda Tarras, to write the terms of reference for the McNeil review.

In an e-mail to Ms. McNeil, Mr. Whitmarsh said Ms. Tarras "is in a position of serious conflict of interest with respect to this matter" because she was heavily involved in the firings. And in an e-mail to Ms. Tarras, he reminds her that they both kept Mr. Dyble informed. "Your immediate superior John Dyble is also seriously conflicted in this matter. You and I, both individually and together briefed John on many occasions during the course of the investigation."

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